A cookie contest keeps friends together through the years

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WEST PEABODY — They call themselves the Agawam Babes, and for 16 years, these girlhood friends have been getting together in each other’s homes for brunch and a cookie swap. It started as a way to stay connected despite marriages, kids, and jobs. The group has changed over the years, but the core has stayed solid.

The Babes include the Nascembeni sisters, Karen and Sandra; the Gatti sisters, Dina, Lisa, and Lynn; and Kathy Walsh Bautze and Pam Lombardini. They all grew up in the same neighborhood in Agawam, in Western Mass., attending the same schools and church. All in their mid-40s to early 50s now, they’re still dear friends. Their annual event takes cookie swapping to new heights.

This year, Dina Gatti Bona, 44, dressed in a shimmery red top, is hosting at her home here. Everyone comes with several dozen cookies. They contribute confections to a common plate, and after brunch they have a contest — a serious tasting, in fact — to decide the best. There are rules: no one can help you bake, no mixes, when it’s time to vote you can vote for yourself, and, of course, you have to be from Agawam.

By 10 a.m. on a recent Sunday, Bona’s house is a flurry of activity. Bing Crosby is crooning Christmas carols and the friends are laughing, reminiscing, and grumbling about the packaging becoming a craft project. Lombardini, 51, is arranging cookies on a two-tiered platter. Karen Nascembeni, 44, is dramatically recounting how she shelled dozens of pistachios for her entry. Her sister, Sandra McArthur, rolls her eyes. Then Nascembeni notices large chocolate cookie sandwiches. “Who brought these big mothers?” she asks. “They look so unhealthy.” Without skipping a beat, Lombardini says, “They are.”
Lisa Gatti Whelan, 48, and her twin, Lynn Gatti Walton, share a photo album and charts of past entries. Bautze, 45, cutting bread, hears someone say that her husband helped print the recipe. Uh-oh. “You’re disqualified,” she shoots back.

Bona tells the group how her power went off, she almost had a nervous breakdown, and she was up into the middle of the night making cookies. No sympathy.

They toast with mimosa cocktails, and the 16th Annual Catty Cookie Swap begins. Cookies are placed on the table; each baker offers an explanation and gives her personal “year in review” — heartfelt, funny, and bawdy stories about families, jobs, and life in general. Nascembeni, last year’s Cookie Queen, wearing her feathery crown, starts. Her lemon pistachio wreaths go on each plate. McArthur presents Italian horn cookies.

Bautze offers lime-coconut snowballs; Whelan has made red-sugar-dusted poinsettias and her twin offers coconut-cherry chews. Lombardini talks about the effort it took to make her chocolate peppermint confections. Bona explains how to make hazelnut macaroon domes.

In addition to the crown, the winner gets a wire whisk scepter and a satin sash with stamped gingerbread men down one edge and “Cookie Queen” on the other. Over the years, the recipes have become more complicated, the packaging more elaborate. If one person’s presentation becomes all glitz and glamour, everyone else follows.
After the tasting, it’s time to crown the queen. Each participant writes a name on a piece of paper, ballots are folded, and placed in a bowl.

Hostess Bona opens the first ballot and shrieks out her own name: “Dina!” Next, “Karen!” Then: “Dina!” “Dina!” In the end, Bona’s hazelnut cookies with ganache are chosen, and for the fifth time she is queen. With scepter and sash, she throws kisses and thanks the group in a queenly way.

The Agawam Babes roar with laughter.

And they seem to be planning how to unseat Bona next year.

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